Inspired by music: a copyright history

I started to work for ALA as a copyright specialist during the Eldred vs. Ashcroft public domain court battle that ultimately went to the Supreme Court. The question was whether the recent extension of the copyright term under the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 from life plus 50 years to life plus 70 years was constitutional. In a 7-2 ruling, the Court said that the term was constitutional and that Congress could determine any term of copyright as long as it was not forever. Even one day less than forever met the definition of “limited times” in the Copyright Clause. I was shattered because I was sure we were going to win. Naïve me.Cover of Theft! A History of Music, a graphic novel

ALA was one of the amici that supported Eric Eldred, an Internet publisher who relied on public domain materials for his business. A lot can be said about the case and a lot has been written. I have argued that the silver lining of the disastrous ruling was the formation of the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Creative Commons and other open licensing movements. The ruling also led the publication of comic book called Bound by Law? Tales from the Public Domain by James Boyle and Keith Aoki. It is a great book that should be in the collection of every library.

This year, there is another book by Boyle, Aoki and Jennifer Jenkins, that should be in the collection of every library. It’s called Theft: A History of Music. It examines the certainty that music could not written without relying on music that was created before—the “standing on the shoulders of giants” idea. There’s a great documentary called John Lennon’s Jukebox that illustrates how music that Lennon loved—rock n’ roll records from the United States—ended up in his music. This music inspired him to be a musician. Its creativity planted the seeds for his own creativity. You can hear a riff on the intro of Richie Barrett’s “Some Other Guy” on “Instant Karma.” That’s cool. (Meanwhile, we see court cases like Blurred Lines and Stairway to Heaven.)

Theft: A History of Music is a labor of love as well as a primer on copyright overall. If you are teaching copyright to librarians or students, this might be the only required text that you assign.

Available online under a Creative Commons license and in print. Here’s a video teaser.

About Carrie Russell

Carrie Russell is the Director of the Program on Public Access to Information in the Office for Information Technology Policy. Her portfolio includes copyright, international copyright, accessibility, e-books and other public policy issues. She has a MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a MA in media arts from the University of Arizona. She can be reached via e-mail at crussell@alawash.org.

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